Friday, August 7, 2009

Classical Liberalism and the Church

Tobias suspects that the Archbishop of Canterbury may have a dimmer view of our polity than we do. In particular, Tobias suspects that Rowan Williams does not appreciate that our House of Deputies has so much authority in relation to our House of Bishops, and the General Convention as a whole. I don't know if this is true of Rowan, but I have heard this very thing voiced to me by other leaders from other non-U.S. Anglican provinces.

It may not come as a surprise that much of what we are seeing in today's divisions stems from differing values about what constitutes and who constitutes authority in the church. To be sure, the Church of England is still an established old-world church, and The Episcopal Church is the first Anglican Communion church to arise in a context of classical liberalism -- what more need be said?

The Church of England still has crown-appointed bishops. As well, in other parts of the communion, especially in the GAFCON provinces, for example, we see Anglican churches constituted in national contexts where classical liberalism has hardly taken any hold at all. Classical liberalism, again, is that particular bundle of ideas which gave rise to the United States' constitution, etc.

I find it no surprise at all therefore, that we see structural differences which are pretty major. What is amazing, in fact, is that more than two centuries ago the Archbishops of York and Canterbury consecrated William White to the episcopate, presumably knowing that he was the author of our deeply 'liberal' ecclesiastical framework.

Now, this all being said, I am still not sure that we in The Episcopal Church need be at all smug or superior vis a vis the depth of classical liberalism in our ecclesiastical dna. Indeed, the individualist ideology at the heart of liberalism, and the very 'political' machinations which describe so much of our own goings on, are edges where faithful critics of our church might have a good place to start.


  1. Well, Father, I'm pretty sure that the CofE has its own sort of political machinations, but like a lot of British politics they are harder to follow from outside. There's definitely jockying for power going on there.

  2. I've always maintained that classical liberalism bases social contract theory on a false metanarrative, which explains its individualism and violence. The Gospel is better able to ground respect for human dignity, which liberalism also claims to want to do. It's not a question of just getting rid of liberalism. We should engage in critical dialogue, as we would with non-Christian religions. But liberal Protestantism has always wanted to give away the store and to identify the Gospel with Western liberal culture. Jesus Christ and the community he founded is our criterion, whether developing a political theory or an account of human personhood and agency.

  3. Bill

    I follow what you say, but I thought of an interesting dicotomy between Jesus (and the context of his time) and that of what gave rise to western liberalism--that of going against the grain.

    Clearly, Jesus spoke out against the establishment (or at least one's allegiance to that which was contra to the Kingdom of God) and introduced a new ethic or new "economy", if you will.

    Whether we agree or disagree with classical liberalism, isn't that what its proponents were/are trying to do in their own way?

    This jumped to mind after reading your post, so I thought I would share it.

  4. I think we need to pay attention to the precise way in which something goes against the grain. Liberalism did have a critique of the ancien regime in which the Gospel might be an ally, but there are ways in which Church is called to be countercultural even in a well established liberal order. There has to be some kind of via media between individualism and fascist corporatism. The true dignity of the individual is found when persons are in communion, neither giving up their real differences nor asserting themselves over against the other.

  5. How can we be in community while not giving up our "real differences", as you put it? "Neither Jew, nor Greek; male or female" comes to mind here.

    If I am a businessman, teacher, doctor, lawyer or painter first and then (emphasis) a Christian, I think I have missed it. If, however, I am a Christian first and then (emphasis) a businessman, teacher, doctor, lawyer or painter, I think I'm getting closer to the community that Jesus was talking about. If my worldview (and, by extension, the view I take of my brothers and sisters) is shaped first by the lense of Jesus, then such view will be more aimed toward the community. If my worldview is first shaped by the lense of what I do, to what I belong or whatever other sense of self I have invested in myself, then that, too, will shape how I view others and it will define the sense in which I am in community with others.

    If I continue to hold on to my prejudices and predispositions (or worse, a political ideology or selfish social belief) ahead of being in true community with my brothers and sisters, then I've missed it.

    What do you mean when you say, "The true dignity of the individual is found when persons are in communion"? I certainly agree that true diginity is found in community, but just because one may not be part of our community or in communion with us does not mean that they are without their true dignity. I trust you agree that even the one that is lost and separated from the 99 has true dignity (perhaps even more than the community due to the value in that one which requires our leaving the 99 to bring them in to the community). If your point is to emphasize the depravity of any community which devalues or fails to recognize true dignity in anyone who is not within that community, then I certainly agree.

    A community of nothing but like-minded, wide-eyed idiots is not a healthy community but a depraved cult. A community of diverse friends seeking the face of God first is a healthy place to begin to reflect the image of God, together, to one another and to the world. How we do this will depend on our willingness as individuals to check our identities at the parish door and bring our crosses and bedrolls, joining the other at the altar rail and being reminded of our constant need for God's grace in all that we do with and to the other, together.

  6. I would argue that the Kingdom is wider than the Church. The Church is the herald and sacramental sign of the Kingdom. The communion of the Church is grounded in the divine communion of the Trinity and is real participation in that communion. It can be experienced outside the Church but its intrinsic dynamic is toward an ecclesial, social form. That owes more than a little bit to the position of the early Rahner.

  7. Classical liberalism is a political doctrine, not a religious one. We get ourselves into trouble when we confuse political categories with religious ones. A good example of that is in the news today. See